“On Collaborative Poetry” by Brian Sheffield (plus three collaborative poems)

Poet and editor, Brian Sheffield, considers why we should sometimes abandon the individualism and egoism of the solitary author. Poetry, when at its best, is collaborative. Here he explores some of why of collaborative poetry writing, and includes three examples from the Boukra Collective.

Despite the trope of the solitary author, writing has always been a collaborative effort. Poets and novelists have editors who review the work and offer feedback or changes for improvement. Academic writing is especially scrupulously reviewed for accuracy. Film and television scripts often go through a long series of changes approved by their respective studios before being produced. And these three examples largely cover contemporary works.

T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was famously recut by Ezra Pound. Shakespeare’s own sole authorship of his plays has been exposed as a myth– with the actors themselves reworking their lines, hence the many variations on single plays in existence today. Ancient poems and epics inevitably changed over time from speaker to speaker until scribes immortalized them to paper or clay. The poet Edwin Muir noted the constant change of oral storytelling in his book On the Estate of Poetry.

Richard Prince is a great example of a living artist who has played with the concept of intellectual property, though not without controversy. He famously republished J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye under his own name. He was also known for releasing photographs from other people under his own name, which garnered him a nasty lawsuit. Nonetheless, Prince is still regarded as an important figure in Appropriation Art.Though we would not call ourselves Appropriation Artists by any means, as we seek the full involvement of the initial author, we too wish to tear down the myth of the author acting alone. 

Boukra Collective is extending this tradition by intentionally creating and curating work that is inherently collaborative in nature. We pursue the creation of work that does not wholly belong to a single person, but is instead reworked, edited, and reimagined by a collective authorship, with the full engagement of the primary authors. Indeed, we are surrounded by deeply talented individuals who deserve to be named. We feel it is also important to move away from the egotistical ethos in Western society which claims that authorship exists apart from culture as a whole. No individual exists completely in their own vacuum. We believe Capitalism and competition to be among the most harmful tools to the human potential, despite arguments otherwise. Resources on this earth are limited, and unlimited growth, which Capitalism requires to function, is unquestionably impossible. The same goes for the single human imagination. We are all limited to the confines of our own experiences. Via non-competitive collaboration with no interest in Capitalistic participation, we feel we will be able to better cultivate the human potential beyond that which any individual is able to offer. In this way, we can showcase a more universal poetic which neither discriminates, prefers, disincludes, oppresses, or harms, while also producing work of real value. It is important to reject the myth of the solitary genius, so that we can realize that we are not merely individuals drowning in a sea of other individuals. Instead, we are a collective species, 7 billion + strong, whose true potential lies in unity and cooperation.

This leads us to one example of the collaborative poem, the Exquisite Corpse. Originally conceived of by the Surrealists, an Exquisite Corpse is any piece of art collaboratively created by a group of people in which each individual contributes a portion towards a single work without seeing any part of what the other participants are contributing, conjuring lines from the unconscious. What is created can oftentimes be absurd, surreal and/or almost completely unrecognizable as a single piece of cohesive work. However, more often than not, there are a series of throughlines within the work that connect all pieces together in surprising and unexpected ways.

Once a month, Boukra Collective hosts a writing workshop in which we invite anyone to come in and write poetry with us. Each workshop ends with an Exquisite Corpse—or some kind of variation of one, we like to mess around with different forms and structure—in which each person contributes words, phrases, and lines. What we have found is that each of these experiments shares a zeitgeist; the prompts, milieu, preoccupations, and ruminations of the collective birth something shared and cohesive.

From this process Boukra Press has a vast store of author-less work, and we have begun polishing these poems for publications. This is our purest expression of our love of collective authorship. Here are three examples of these collaborative poems, we hope you’ll enjoy their uncanny but wonderful singularity as much as we do.

Brian Sheffield is a performance poet, currently writing in Rome, but generally based out of the central coast in California. He is co-founder of Mad Gleam Press, a French-American small press. He is also co-editor of POST(blank) and an editor with the Boukra Collective. He has performed and been published internationally, among predominantly independent circles.

Three collectively written poems by the Boukra Collective

“A night with comrades, March 30, 2022”

We carry crowbars      pilfered bricks now
Fighting against the night’s curfew
Flying against the silver sky
All witching hour

Howl     our invocation      our wild devotion     hour by hour
Howl     void beneath our clothes      our skin
Torn each layer
Burn each letter      scatter the ashes

We apparate     we move away
Gliding      stumbling      stooping
What we call the movement      what we call the struggle
Our passions unearthed     sprouting up     branching out

Our fruit grows rounder       rougher
What smoothes the edges of ourselves
Smooth      soft       our fingers in the pelt of our hair
Sweat off from the edges        the joy beyond chaos

This smoky lounge filled with lively death 
Here we reach        into the fullness of existence
Always reaching
Dancing through the stonewall


Silence enters leaden with chains
Flowers pressed in her palms
Lynx-eyed, a lamia gorged, swimming
The archaeologist replied;
“Enclose her words with sweaty lips”
De-centered; descending,     birthed
          Toward the litter of fire
Beyond the living room, a kitchen shelf collapsing,
Pots, pans, clattering 
                        onto the 
                                        tile floor.
Sweet air in the lungs, 
         goosebumps dancing
I have forgotten, I…

Clear landing

There were only three reasons why the box would be empty–

I couldn’t think of them at the time
I couldn’t think of the time when I thought of them
they were tucked away
from the future into the past,
trailing a series of markings that seemed random at first.

I found a way.

I weighed what I found
and measured sound against the page–murmurations at dusk
seeping and slipping into the water–an elegant bird
a stream of bubbles rising, drifting, bursting 
one by one, until the water’s temper found clarity.

I shall discern the messages
passed in blood between the moon and myself
shadows cast deeply from the trees
striking into the dimmest holes,
always ready to expand beyond their location.

There’s no such thing as stability or panic, just movement
in and out of self, with or without consciousness–
what the ossified called lunacy is not kind,
it is freedom to be lucid
and untouched by pain, in a pure state of innocence
that allows the commotion to resolve into a peaceful hum.

These poems were written and edited by Brian Sheffield, Jeff Erwin, Claire Durand-Gasselin, Stephanie England, Penel Alden, Heather Flescher, and Briars

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